Tag Archives: writing

2005-06-18: Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird

Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994)

by Anne Lamott (1954-)

This was recommended on someone’s (I’ve forgotten whose) weblog. I’d never heard of Anne Lamott, but something about the recommendation intrigued me, and I requested it from the library.

In the first part of the book, Lamott tries to explain why she started and persisted at writing, painting herself as a weird kid with no friends or prospects, and as a neurotic adult convinced that everyone has severe mental problems. I was tempted to drop the book early. Eventually she got to the advice about writing, which she has taught for many years.

Describing the difficulty of actually sticking to writing, she has a quote from E. L. Doctorow (whom I also haven’t read): “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.” And Chesterton said that hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances we know to be desperate.

In her advice on characters, she says:

Think of the basket of each character’s life: what holds the ectoplasm together – what are this person’s routines, beliefs? What little things would your characters write in their journals: I ate this, I hate that, I did this, I took the dog for a long walk, I chatted with my neighbor. This is all the stuff that tethers them to the earth and to other people, all the stuff that makes each character think that life sort of makes sense.

The basket is an apt image because of all the holes. How aware is each character of how flimsy the basket really is? How present are your people? Someone once said to me, “I am trying to learn to stay in the now – not the last now, not the next now, this now.” Which “now” do your characters dwell in?

A little later she says:

I once asked Ethan Canin to tell me the most valuable thing he knew about writing, and without hesitation he said, “Nothing is as important as a likable narrator. Nothing holds a story together better.” I think he’s right. If your narrator is someone whose take on things fascinates you, it isn’t really going to matter if nothing much happens for a long time. I could watch John Cleese or Anthony Hopkins do dishes for about an hour without needing much else to happen. Having a likable narrator is like having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds your attention, who makes you laugh out loud, whose lines you always want to steal. . . .

Now, a person’s faults are largely what make him or her likable. I like for narrators to be like the people I choose for friends, which is to say that they have a lot of the same flaws as I.

On plot, she refers to books by E. M. Forster and John Gardner. She then says “Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen.” Later: Plot is “what people will up and do in spite of everything that tells them they shouldn’t”. And “Find out what each character cares most about in the world because then you will have discovered what’s at stake. Find a way to express this discovery in action, and then let your people set about finding or holding onto or defending whatever it is. Then you can take them from good to bad and back again, or from bad to good, or from lost to found. But something must be at stake or you will have no tension and your readers will not turn the pages. Think of a hockey player – there had better be a puck out there on the ice, or he is going to look pretty ridiculous.”

She says:

John Gardner wrote that the writer is creating a dream into which he or she invites the reader, and that the dream must be vivid and continuous. I tell my students to write this down – that the dream must be vivid and continuous – because it is so crucial. . . . you don’t get to sit next to readers and explain little things you left out, or fill in details that would have made the action more interesting or believeable. The material has got to work on its own, and the dream must be vivid and continuous.

She says, “Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.” I suppose this is part of the instruction about Life. “The writer is a person who is standing apart, like the cheese in ‘The Farmer in the Dell’ standing there alone but deciding to take a few notes.” She promotes “compassionate detachment”, and gets very Taoist. She has this poem by “the Persion mystic, Rumi” taped over her desk:

God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box,
from cell to cell. As rainwater, down into flowerbed.
As roses, up from ground.
Now it looks like a plate of rice and fish,
now a cliff covered with vines,
now a horse being saddled.
It hides within these,
till one day it cracks them open.

She also has a Gary Snyder poem:

Ripples on the surface of the water–
were silver salmon passing under–different
from ripples caused by breezes

Throughout, she plays down the importance of publication. She urges writing for its own sake, for its effects on the writer, and as a gift to readers such as friends. She quotes Toni Morrison: “The function of freedom is to free someone else.”, and says “if you are no longer wracked or in bondage to a person or a way of life, tell your story. Risk freeing someone else. Not everyone will be glad that you did.”

The bits above were the interesting bits for me, and I’m sure there are better books for writers than this one. Still, every little bit helps. Perhaps her urging will motivate me to write more.


2004-02-18: Will in the World

Will in the World

How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004)

by Stephen Greenblatt (1943-)

Greenblatt is a Harvard professor, editor of The Norton Shakespeare, and has clearly pondered the ways in which a person’s background thought affects his expression, or at least the ways in which the known, surmised, and conjectured background thought of William Shakespeare affected his expression in the sonnets and plays.

I read this book not long after Michael Woods’ In Search of Shakespeare, and the early parts of this book contained a lot of familiar material. However, the two works have different objectives and approaches. I found them both very interesting.

Greenblatt describes the constraints on players of the Elizabethan period, and the religious, social, and entertainment communities in which Shakespeare came of age. Addressing his later work, Greenblatt describes Shakespeare’s innovations, particularly what he calls the opacity of motivation: a way of describing a character’s actions without explicitly describing his thought processes, rather allowing the audience to infer them from more or less subtle hints implicit in the behavior. The final chapter describes how thoughts of retirement must have influenced his latest plays.

I found it interesting to learn how the fortunes of his company were affected by the accession of James, and the ways in which Shakespeare probed the limits of censorship or royal acceptance. I also hadn’t known of his business success in setting up for a long retirement.

Greenblatt acknowledges many scholars and biographers. Interestingly, among them is Woods and the movie Shakespeare In Love.

As often happens, this work inspires me to read further. I would like to look into the Norton Shakespeare, though I can’t tell if I will give this project enough priority to actually accomplish it (it’s over 3,000 pages!).


2004-12-16: Chronicles


Volume One (2004)

by Bob Dylan (1941-)

I ran across a mention of this book more or less at random, and requested it from the library catalog.

This is a more straightforward work than some of Dylan’s other writings, and covers parts of his life from childhood to about 1987. There is a surprising amount of information about his early days in the Minneapolis folk scene from 1959 to about 1961, and his early New York years. The material is presented out of order, and without many actual dates, but it is possible to keep it more or less straight.

From about 1961, he has this to say about the Beats:

Within the first few months that I was in New York I’d lost my interest in the “hungry for kicks” hipster vision that Kerouac illustrates so well in his book On the Road. That book had been like a bible for me. Not anymore, though. I still loved the breathless, dynamic bop poetry phrases that flowed from Jack’s pen, but now, that character Moriarty seemed out of place, purposeless – seemed like a character who inspired idiocy. He goes through life bumping and grinding with a bull on top of him.

After his success led to celebrity, and after he had a family, he felt trapped by the hordes, becoming a tourist destination. Around 1968 he withdrew and abandoned his supposed leadership of the music and youth scene, “spokesman for the new generation”.

What mattered to me most was getting breathing room for my family. The whole spectral world could go to hell. My outer image would have to be something a bit more confusing, a bit more humdrum. It’s hard to live like this. It takes all your effort. The first thing that has to go is any form of artistic self-expression that’s dear to you. Art is unimportant next to life, and you have no choice. I had no hunger for it anymore, anyway. Creativity has much to do with experience, observation and imagination, and if any one of those key ingredients is missing, it doesn’t work. It was impossible now for me to observe anything without being observed. … I had never intended to be on the road of heavy consequences and I didn’t like it. I wasn’t the toastmaster of any generation, and that notion needed to be pulled up by its roots. Liberty for myself and my loved ones had to be secured. I had no time to kill and I didn’t like what was being thrown at me. This main meal of garbage had to mixed up with some butter and mushrooms and I’d have to go to great lengths to do it. You gotta start somewhere.

He then describes how he went about wrecking his public image to get people off his back. My favorite part of this passage is the part in bold (my emphasis) above.

His father didn’t seem to understand him, asked if art wasn’t something that painters did. However, in one phone call home, Dylan recalls his father saying, “Remember, Robert, in life anything can happen. Even if you don’t have all the things you want, be grateful for things you don’t have that you don’t want.”

In Chapter 5, River of Ice, about his Minneapolis days he mentions a lot of artists who influenced him in that period. He listened to a lot of Folkways records, and mentions Foc’sle Songs and Sea Shanties by Dave Van Ronk and others. Van Ronk would later get him his first steady gig in New York. He also mentions the Electra record Sampler, which had Peggy Seeger among others, and the cowboy song “Doney Gal”. He listened to John Jacob Niles’s songs “Maid Freed from the Gallows” and “Go Away from My Window” a lot. He mentions old ballads he heard from Harry Webber, such as “Old Greybeard”, “When a Man’s in Love”, “Roger Esquire”. He heard someone’s record with Tom Darby and Jimmy Tarleton singing “Way Down in Florida on a Hog”.

At some point someone let him listen to a collection of Woody Guthrie records; prior to this, he had only heard Guthrie singing on records with other people, singing traditional songs.

I put one on the turntable and when the needle dropped, I was stunned – didn’t know if I was stoned or straight. What I heard was Woody singing a whole lot of his own compositions all by himself . . . songs like “Ludlow Massacre,” “1913 Massacre,” “Jesus Christ,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Hard Travelin’,” “Jackhammer John,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues,” “This Land Is Your Land.”

All these songs together, one after another made my head spin. It made me want to gasp. It was like the land parted. I had heard Guthrie before but mainly just a song here and there – mostly things that he sang with other artists. I hadn’t actually heard him, not in this earth shattering kind of way. I couldn’t believe it. Guthrie had such a grip on things. He was so poetic and tough and rhythmic. There was so much intensity, and his voice was like a stiletto. He was like none of the other singers I ever heard, and neither were his songs. His mannerisms, the way everything just rolled off his tongue, it all just about knocked me down. It was like the record player itself had picked me up and flung me across the room. I was listening to his diction, too. He had a perfected style of singing that it seemed like no one else had ever thought about. He would throw in the sound of the last letter of a word whenever he felt like it and it would come like a punch. The songs themselves, his repertoire, were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them. Not one mediocre song in the bunch. Woody Guthrie tore everything in his path to pieces. For me it was an epiphany, like some heavy anchor had just plunged into the waters of the harbor.

That day I listened all afternoon to Guthrie as if in a trance and I felt like I had discovered some essence of self-command, that I was in the internal pocket of the system feeling more like myself than ever before. A voice in my head said, “So this is the game.” I could sing all these songs, every single one of them and they were all that I wanted to sing. It was like I had been in the dark and someone had turned on the main switch of a lightning conductor.

A great curiosity respecting the man had also seized me and I had to find out who Woody Guthrie was. It didn’t take me long. Dave Whittaker, one of the Svengali-type Beats on the scene happened to have Woody’s autobiography, Bound for Glory, and he lent it to me. I went through it from cover to cover like a hurricane, totally focused on every word, and the book sang out to me like the radio. Guthrie writes like the whirlwind and you get tripped out on the sound of the words alone. Pick up the book anywhere, turn to any page and he hits the ground running. Who is he? He’s a hustling ex-sign painter from Oklahoma, an antimaterialist who grew up in the Depression and Dust Bowl days – migrated West, had a tragic childhood, a lot of fire in his life – figuratively and literally. He’s a singing cowboy, but he’s more than a singing cowboy. Woody’s got a fierce poetic soul – the poet of hard crust sod and gumbo mud. Guthrie divides the world between those who work and those who don’t and is interested in the liberation of the human race and wants to create a world worth living in. Bound for Glory is a hell of a book. It’s huge. Almost too big.

His songs are something else, though, and even if you’ve never read the book, you’d know who he was through his songs. For me, his songs made everything else come to a screeching halt. I decided then and there to sing nothing but Guthrie songs. It’s almost like I didn’t have any choice. I liked my repertoire the way it was – stuff like “Cornbread, Meat and Molasses,” “Betty and Dupree,” “Pick a Bale of Cotton” – but I’d have to put it all on the back burner for a while, didn’t know if I’d ever get back to it. Through his compositions my view of the world was coming sharply into focus. I said to myself I was going to be Guthrie’s greatest disciple. It seemed a worthy thing. I even seemed to be related to him. Even from a distance and having never seen the man, I could perceive his face with a clearness. He looks not unlike my father in my father’s early days. I knew little about Woody. I wasn’t even sure if he was alive anymore. The book makes it seem like he was a character from the old past. Whittaker, though, had got me up to date on him, that he was in ill health somewhere in the East and I pondered that.

During the next few weeks I went back a few times to Lyn’s house to listen to those records. He was the only one who seemed to have so many of them. One by one, I began singing them all, felt connected to those songs on every level. They were cosmic. One thing for sure, Woody Guthrie had never seen nor heard of me, but it felt like he was saying, “I’ll be going away, but I’m leaving this job in your hands. I know I can count on you.”

I’d say Dylan was somewhat influenced by Woody Guthrie.

His girlfriend took him to hear a Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil production that included a song called “Pirate Jenny”, which also had a great influence on his approach to writing.

In about 1963, Dylan was given a pre-release copy of Robert Johnson’s blues songs being released by his record company, Columbia. This also impressed him:

When Johnson started singing, he seemed to like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor. I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard. The songs weren’t customary blues songs. They were perfected pieces – each song contained four or five verses, every couplet intertwined with the next but in no obvious way. They were so utterly fluid. At first they went by quick, too quick to even get. They jumped all over the place in range and subject matter, short punchy verses that resulted in some panoramic story – fires of mankind blasting off the surface of this spinning piece of plastic. “Kind Hearted Woman,” “Traveling Riverside Blues,” “Come On in My Kitchen.”

Johnson’s voice and guitar were ringing the room and I was mixed up in it. Didn’t see how anybody couldn’t be.  But Dave wasn’t. … The record that didn’t grab Dave very much left me numb, like I’d been hit by a tranquilizer bullet. … Over the next few weeks I listened to it repeatedly, cut after cut, one song after another, sitting staring at the record player. Whenever I did, it felt like a ghost had come into the room, a fearsome apparition. The songs were layered with a startling economy of lines. Johnson masked the presence of more than twenty men. I fixated on every song and wondered how Johnson did it. Songwriting for him was some highly sophisticated business. The compositions seemed to come right out of his mouth and not his memory, and I started meditating on the construction of the verses, seeing how different they were from Woody’s. Johnson’s words made my nerves quiver like piano wires. They were so elemental in meaning and feeling and gave you so much of the inside picture. It’s not that you could sort out every moment carefully, because you can’t. There are too many missing terms and too much dual existence. Johnson bypasses tedious descriptions that other blues writers would have written whole songs about. There’s no guarantee that any of his lines either happened, were said, or even imagined. When he sings about icicles hanging on a tree it gives me the chills, or about milk turning blue . . . it made me nauseous and I wondered how he did that. Also, all the songs had some weird personal resonance. Throwaway lines, like, “If today were Christmas Eve and tomorrow were Christmas Day.” I could feel that in my bones – that particular yuletide time of the year. … Everything for Johnson is legitimate prey. There’s a fishing song called “Dead Shrimp Blues” unlike anything you could expect – a screwed up fishing song with red-blooded lines that’s way beyond metaphor. …

I copied Johnson’s words down on scraps of paper so I could more closely examine the lyrics and patterns, the construction of his old-style lines and the free association that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction – themes that flew through the air with the greatest of ease. I didn’t have any of these dreams or thoughts but I was going to acquire them. I thought about Johnson a lot, wondered who his audience might have been. It’s hard to imagine sharecroppers or plantation hands at hop joints, relating to songs like these. You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future. “The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out,” he sings. Johnson is serious, like the scorched earth. There’s nothing clownish about him or his lyrics. I wanted to be like that, too. …

In a few years’ time, I’d write and sing songs like “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Who Killed Davey Moore,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and some others like that. If I hadn’t gone to the Theater de Lys and heard the ballad “Pirate Jenny,” it might not have dawned on me to write them, that songs like these could be written. In about 1964 and ’65, I probably used about five or six of Robert Johnson’s blues song forms, too, unconsciously, but more on the lyrical imagery side of things. If I hadn’t heard the Robert Johnson record, when I did, there probably wouldn’t have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down – that I wouldn’t have felt free enough or upraised to write. … To go with all of that, someplace along the line Suze had also introduced me to the poetry of French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. That was a big deal, too. I came across one of his letters called “Je est un autre,” which translates into “I is someone else.” When I read those words the bells went off. It made perfect sense. I wished someone would have mentioned that to me earlier. It went right along with Johnson’s dark night of the soul and Woody’s hopped-up union meeting sermons and the “Pirate Jenny” framework. Everything was in transition and I was standing in the gateway. Soon I’d step in heavy loaded, fully alive and revved up.

Of course, Dylan has been through some significant changes in his outlook, and it is impossible to know how the current Dylan really sees his earlier versions, and how he has censored himself. Nonetheless, the book is interesting and if there is ever another volume, I’ll read it.


2004-10-28: Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (2004)

by Lynne Truss (1955-)

This book was mentioned on a weblog by an editor of computer books. In part, he was surprised by the fact that a book about punctuation could be interesting. I requested it from the library, and also found it interesting.

Truss is a stickler, and apparently easily aroused to intolerance. The book is full of examples of punctuation misuse, as a way to pound home its proper use. She claims to want people to paint out (or in) apostrophes and the like where they are found (or missing) in public places.

The book is fairly interesting, but I suspect it achieved best-seller status (in Britain) without being read as many times as it was sold.

It’s possible my attention wandered at the critical point, but I didn’t see the title phrase in the book; it is on the back of the jacket, thus:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a meal and consumes it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes for the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife booklet and tosses it over his shoulder.

“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like animal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”


2003-07-27: The Language of the Night

The Language of the Night

Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (1989)

by Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-)

This is a revised edition, based on the original of 1979. Le Guin has added notes, in some cases repudiating earlier statements, but has not actually rewritten history. It’s interesting to see where her views have changed.

I have read some (or parts of some) of these essays before, but never the collection. It is well-organized and presents an interesting view of a writer’s view of writing.

My first bookmark is on the essay The Child and the Shadow (1974). I would like to transcribe it, as I like its description of the way fantasy fits into the needs of children for myth-like works. It’s interesting to note that this essay has evidently not been revised. At least there are no notes, other than bibliographic notes. Le Guin seems to have found a lot to like in C. G. Jung, Psychology and Religion, especially pp. 76 and 83. She also mentions Jolande Jacobi’s The Psychology of C.G. Jung, p 107.

In her essay Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown (1975), she laments the inability of much fantasy (including sci-fi) to deal with real personalities, using Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Brown as symbol. In it she mentions Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We as an early exception. I have obtained it from the library. She also seems to recommend Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia. She almost includes Frodo Baggins in the roster of personalities, but hesitates as she really sees him as one personality split among Frodo, Sam, Gollum and Sméagol; and maybe Bilbo. In modern sci-fi she includes Nobusuke Tagomi, from Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, and Thea Cadence from D. G. Compton’s Synthajoy.  Her vision is that a novel is written about characters. She mentions Angus Wilson (The Old Men at the Zoo) as another who writes this way (though not categorized as sci-fi).

In her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness (1976), she has this to say about fiction:

In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find – if it’s a good novel – that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.

The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.

The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot  be said in words.

Words can be used thus paradoxically because they have, along with a semiotic usage, a symbolic or metaphorical usage. (They also have a sound – a fact the linguistic positivists take no interest in. A sentence or paragraph is like a chord or harmonic sequence in music; its meaning may be more clearly understood by the attentive ear, even though  it is read in silence, than by the attentive intellect.)

All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life – science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of tese metaphors; so is the alternative society, an alternative bioology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphore.

A metaphor for what?

If I could have said it nonmetaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel; and Genly Ai would never have sat down at my desk and used up my ink and typewriter ribbon in informing me, and you, rather solemnly, that the truth is a matter of the imagination.

In The Staring Eye (1974), she discusses Tolkien, and his impact on her. She dismisses critics’ glib rejection of his treatment of “the Problem of Evil”. She says their arguments are the same arguments Tolkien himself exploded in his 1934 essay on Beowulf, “The Monster and the Critics”.  “an article which anyone who sees Tolkien as a Sweet Old Dear, by the way, would do well to read.”

In The Modest One (1976), she speaks well of four more of Philip K. Dick’s works: Dr. Bloodmoney, Martian Time-Slip, Clans of the Alphane Moon, and “the extremely funny” Galactic Pot-Healer. She compares Dick writing Manfred in Martian Time-Slip as the same risk Virginia Woolf took in writing Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway. Both are studies in madness, and the writers paid a price.

In Escape Routes (1974-5), she addresses the charge of escapism often leveled at fantasy/sci-fi. She begins with a paraphrase of Tolkien’s response to the charge:

Yes, he said, fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? The moneylenders, the know-nothings, the authoritarians have us all in prison; if we value the freedom of the mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can.

But people who are not fools or bigots, people who love both art and liberty … reject science fiction flatly as a genre not worth discussing. Why? What makes them so sure?

The question, after all, must be asked: from what is one escaping, and to what?

Evidently, if we’re escaping a world that consists of Newsweek, Pravda and the Stock Market Report, and asserting the existence of a primary, vivid world, an intenser reality where joy, tragedy and morality exist, then we’re doing a good thing, and Tolkien is right. But what if we’re doing just the opposite? What if we’re escaping from a complex, uncertain, frightening world of death and taxes into a nice simple cozy place where heroes don’t have to pay taxes, where death happens only to villains, where Science, plus Free Enterprise, plus Galactic Fleet in black and silver uniforms, can solve all problems, where human suffering is something that can be cured – like scurvy? This is no escape from the phony. This is an escape into the phony. This doesn’t take us in the direction of the great myths and legends, which is always toward an intensification of the mystery of the real. This takes us the other way, toward a rejection of reality, in fact toward madness: infantile regression, or paranoid delusion, or schizoid insulation. The movement is retrograde, autistic. We have escaped by locking ourselves in jail.

In The Stalin in the Soul (1973-7), she addresses censorship. First she sketches the case of Zamyatin, censored by the Soviet state. Then she rants against the censorship of the market, or self-censorship by artists who want to sell to the mass market. It’s all very sad. She makes the point that freedom of expression is not a privilege granted by our Constitution but denied by other governments: it is a right of every person, which can be accepted by government, or denied and withheld by force. At the end of the essay she quotes from Zamyatin:

A literature that is alive does not live by yesterday’s clock, nor by today’s, but by tomorrow’s. It is a sailor sent aloft: from the masthead he can see foundering ships, icebergs, and maelstroms still invisible from the deck.

In a storm you must have a man aloft, and SOS signals come from every side. Only yesterday a writer could calmly stroll along the deck, click his Kodak; but who will want to look at landscapes and genre scenes when the world is listing at a forty-five degree angle, the green maws are gaping, the hull is creaking? Today we can look and think only as men do in the face of death: we are about to die – what did it al mean? How have we lived? If we could start all over, from the beginning, what would we live by? And for what? What we need in literature today are vast philosophic horizons – horizons seen from mastheads, from airplanes; we need the most ultimate, the most fearsome, the most fearless “Why?” and “What next?”

What is truly alive stops before nothing and ceaselessly seeks answers to absurd, childish questions. Let the answers be wrong, let the philosophy be mistaken – errors are more valuable than truths; truth is of the machine, error is alive; truth reassures, error disturbs. And if answers be impossible of attainment, all the better! Dealing with answered questions is the privilege of brains constructed like a cow’s stomach, which, as we know, is built to digest cud.

If there were anything fixed in nature, if there were truths, all this would, of course, be wrong. But fortunately, all truths are erroneous. This is the very essence of the dialectical process: today’s truths become errors tomorrow; there is no final number.

Revolution is everywhere, in everything. It is infinite. There is no final revolution. There is no final number.

Several of the revisions Le Guin makes (notes really) concern changes in her feminist views over the years from 1979 to 1989. She is more firm, less compromising, in her choice of words. In part this is a greater willingness to allow her words to offend, to make the (male) reader notice the point, rather than comply with social niceties. That’s interesting, but hardly the most interesting part of the book. I like the way she says writers are supposed to write truth, and fantasy is one way to do it.


2002-12-08: Style


Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (2000, 6th ed.)

by Joseph M. Williams (1933-2008)

Williams has evidently been at this business for many years. His objective, as stated in the Preface is to answer three questions:

  • What is it about a sentence that influences how readers judge its clarity?
  • How can we diagnose our own prose to anticipate their judgements?
  • How can we revise it so that readers will think better of it?

Williams doesn’t meddle in the writer’s first few drafts, assuming those are for the writer to figure out what he means to say. Rather, he intends to help the writer shape his sentences and paragraphs so that readers can learn what the writer has to say with minimum effort. The tenth chapter touches on the ethics of writing, addressing the reasons writers should care about the burdens they impose on readers.

In lessons four through seven, Williams introduces and elaborates a device to relate the components of a sentence, and to remind the writer of patterns to look for in diagnosing his writing:





Short, simple, familiar

New, long, complex









I found this small book more interesting, and probably more useful, than any other writing advice I have read. I may actually buy this book.

I haven’t seen earlier editions, but this one apparently has an increased emphasis on ethics.

Williams provides an appendix discussing effective punctuation, and a glossary defining the technical grammatical terms he uses to discuss sentences and their components.

Each of the four parts (Style as Choice, Clarity, Grace, Ethics) and each chapter has a nice set of quotations to reinforce the lessons. I have copied several of them into my “quotes” collection.

The inside front cover contains a one-page summary of the lessons:

Ten Keys to a Clear and Graceful Style

  1. The key to a thoughtful style: Write from the point of view of your readers; they probably know less than you do about what you are asking them to read, so you must be clearer than you think you have to be.
  2. The key to a correct style: Write not as the grammarians say you must, but as writers you admire actually do.
  3. The first key to a clear style: Put your important characters in subjects, and to the degree you can, make those subjects short, specific, and concrete.
  4. The second key to a clear style: Join those subjects to verbs that express specific actions.
  5. The keys to a cohesive and coherent style: Begin sentences with information familiar to your readers, end them with information that is new and unpredictable. In a series of several sentences, focus their subjects on a consistent set of concepts.
  6. The key to an emphatic style: End your sentences on your rhetorically most salient, most powerful, most grammatically heavy words.
  7. The key to a pointed style: Cut, cut again, then cut once more.
  8. The keys to a shapely style: Get to the verb in the main clause quickly by keeping introductory phrases and subjects short, by avoiding interrupting elements between the subject and verb. Extend the sentence not by tacking one subordinate clause on to another, but with running modifiers and coordinated constructions.
  9. The key to an elegant style: Write clearly, create balanced and parallel phrases and clauses after the subject; make those phrases and clauses echo one another’s sounds, structures, and ideas.
  10. The key to an ethical style: Write to others as you would have others write to you.


2000-08-28: Simple and Direct

Simple & Direct

A Rhetoric for Writers (1975)

by Jacques Barzun (1907-2012)

I saw a note concerning Barzun’s most recent work of history, encompassing the past 500 years of Western Civilization. While searching for it in the library, I came across this book. Barzun writes not as a teacher of writing, but as a teacher who has read a lot of pretty bad writing (from students and others). He works by explaining a principle, illustrating it with (presumed real) examples, summarizes in a Principle, and provides exercises for the reader. I looked at the exercises (briefly), but didn’t take them seriously. Except for a seemingly lengthy stretch concerning the visual appearance of handwritten corrections and typescript pages (the book was written pre-word-processor), I found the advice germane and the presentation interesting. Best of all, while reading such a book one is entitled to expect high quality writing.

He includes some quotes:

Words, therefore, as well as things, claim the care of an author. Every man has often found himself deficient in the power of expression, big with ideas which he could not utter, and unable to impress upon his reader the image existing in his own mind.    Dr. Johnson

I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate to the left or right, the readers will most certainly go into it. – C.S. Lewis

… here and there a touch of good grammar for picturesqueness.  – Mark Twain

Chapter I:  DICTION, or Which Words to Use is about the importance of getting the meaning right by choosing the word with the right meaning (denotation and connotation).

He stresses the use of a thesaurus, and a good dictionary for all those words we ‘know’ but can’t quite pin down.

Principle 1:  Have a point and make it by means of the best word.

He deplores jargon, usually a single ill-chosen word. For instance, motivation where motive would do. This is also an example of the plague of -tion words in common usage. Shun -tion, he says.

Principle 2:  Weed out the jargon.

A special cases is the common word used in an uncommon way, and the uncommon word used to obfuscate.

Principle 3:  Look for all fancy wordings and get rid of them.

Here he cautions against coinages, without good cause and understanding of the roots, suffices and combining principles involved. Acronyms and other abbreviations usually slow down the reader. The tendencies are to compress too much meaning into too few words (or letters), and to  squander too many words on too little meaning.

Principle 4:  Make sure you know not only the meaning but also the bearing of the words you use.

Principle 5:  Consult your second thoughts about slang, euphemisms, and “what everybody says,” so as to make your diction entirely your own choice.

Chapter II:  Linking, or What to Put Next addresses the problems of putting one word after (or before) another. Here he has some comments that express my ideas on mental workings.

There is not much linking, or not good linking, in the spontaneous expression of the mind when it gropes toward a meaning. For one does not usually think in full sentences or in single words, but in clumps of half-formed ideas that correspond very imperfectly to one’s intention. The intention itself changes and grows as one talks or writes.

In the attempt to write well–which is at the same time to think well–these clusters of untrimmed thought must be taken apart and looked at to test their connections and to find the best order of setting them down. …

A completed sentence, all agree, is a piece of construction; but we should not think of it as a house made building blocks. Rather, it resembles a skeleton, in which the joints, the balance, the fit of the parts and their inner solidity combine to make up a well-knit frame. …

To link or separate what has been wrongly split or joined is nothing else than to straighten out the syntax.

Principle 6:  Respect the integrity of set phrases, partitives, clichés, and complex modifiers.

Principle 7:  Ideas connected in reality require words similarly linked, by nearness or by suitable linking words.

Principle 8:  For a plain style, avoid everything that can be called roundabout–in idea, in linking, or in expression.

Principle 9:  Agreement is as pleasant in prose as it is in personal relations, and no more difficult to work for.

Principle 10:  Cling to your meaning. The tense or mood of a verb in a linked pair can destroy it.

This chapter ends with a selection from a lecture by Dorothy L. Sayers, called Aristotle on Detective Fiction. In it she says that Aristotle, in the Poetics, discussed Greek theater not because he loved it, but because it was practically the only example available to him and his readers. “But what, in his heart of hearts, he desired was a good detective story”.

Barzun starts Chapter III: Tone and Tune, or What Impression Will It Make? with these words: “What the reader calls pleasant or dull, what he remembers easily and returns to with eagerness, what he wishes more of in the form of new essays or stories or polemics, or warns his friends to keep away from, is largely a matter of Tone.” He then goes on to deplore the pseudo-technical tone.

Principle 11:  Do not borrow plumes.

Principle 12:  To be plain and straightforward, resist equally the appeal of old finery and the temptation of smart novelties.

“Old fineries” have become hackneyed by imitation, and “novelties” become trite too fast.

Principle 13:  The mark of a plain tone is combined lucidity and force.

Chapter IV:  Meaning, or What Do I Want to Say? appears to repeat a previously-covered topic, but Barzun is now discussing the meaning of a piece as a whole, beginning with the thought that started the whole enterprise. He quotes, without attribution: “The fundamental rule of style is to keep solely in view the thought one wants to convey. One must therefore have a thought to start with.” Barzun goes on:

Many writers have said that they do not fully grasp their own meaning until they have carved it like a statue, using words as material. The reason is plain. One starts writing, not with a well-shaped thought, trimmed and polished, but with an intent–perhaps with several, overlapping and conflicting. You see a scene in your mind’s eye or know the tendency of a complex argument, but do not know which part of the scene or argument is to come first–what, anyhow, is a part of something you sense as an undivided whole? Thinking, and nothing but thinking, will answer these questions; nor will the answer be satisfactory until the words are down on paper that represent the first finished piece of description or argument.

As the pieces (sentences) are added, one by one, they will so clearly show up gaps, inconsistencies, confusions in the sequence of thoughts–all quite hidden before you wrote–that you will inevitably come to see how writing is an instrument of thought.

On the topic of metaphor, Barzun has an interesting perspective:

A metaphor is a comparison embodied in a word or phrase without the addition of like or as. To say: “People’s characters are neither all black nor all white” is to compare virtue and vice with the colors white and black without saying so. The greater part of the vocabulary in any complex language is a mass of forgotten metaphors. For language grows in response to needs, and the readiest way to name new conceptions is to adapt concrete words to abstract purposes. To do this is to speak by metaphor–as when Socrates is called the gadfly of Athens.

Such metaphors often generate new concrete meanings out of which new metaphors are made, and so on. These various turns can be noted in: “A man’s financial position is said to be liquid when he can convert most of his assets into cash.” That sentence contains six buried metaphors, those in financial, position, liquid, convert, assets, and cash. If translated backward into roots the sentence says: “A man’s finishing [settling] put-there is said to be like water when he can turn his enoughs into a box.” By using box (in French, caisse; cf. packing case) to denote the contents of a money box, the idea we know as cash was expressed. It ought to follow that cash box ought to mean box box, but it does not, because the original has died and been buried in the word until we no longer think of box on hearing cash.

But it is evident that liquid in the same sentence is on a different footing. Except in banking circles, the word is still metaphorical. Ask a friend out of the blue: “How liquid are you today?” and the context of money will not occur to him at once as it would if you said: “How are you fixed for cash?” The metaphor, in short, still has life as a metaphor. The interplay between live and dead metaphors, and live and live, and live and resuscitated, constitutes the subject of most discussions of metaphorical writing. The injunction usually is: do not join two live metaphors that raise conflicting images. …

For the fully conscious writer, it may be useful to distinguish among three kinds of metaphor: (a) the ready-made single-word expression that spreads suddenly in some professional group or other–the jargon of people who do paper work; (b) those produced ad hoc for headlines, captions, and the like, and usually not repeated elsewhere; and (c) the latent metaphors in good ordinary words, which misuse galvanizes into fresh life. …

It remains to say a few words about certain tricks of prose that resemble metaphor, broadly speaking. One is irony, which uses ordinary words to mean the opposite of their ordinary meaning. It is a dangerous sort of tone unless skillfully handled: you may be taken at your word and the irony altogether missed. … Remember too that there is no synonymy in metaphor. The fact that one image will “work” is no guarantee that a closely related on will also. … If equivalence were possible … one could go from stubborn as a mule to pigheaded for stubborn, and arrive at pigheaded as a mule.

This stretch of the book, from page 119 to 146 had an oddity I’d never seen before: the page numbers were wildly out of order. Apparently a section of the sewn-in binding was folded the wrong way, or otherwise inserted wrongly. All the pages are there; fortunately they have page numbers.

Principle 14:  Trifles matter in two ways: magnified, they lead to pedantry; overlooked, they generate nonsense.

Principle 15:  Make fewer words do more work by proper balance, matching parts, and tight construction.

Principle 16:  Worship no images and question the validity of all.

Principle 17:  In each portion of the work, begin from a point clear to you and the reader and move forward without wobble or meander.

Chapter V:  Composition, or How Does It Hang Together? addresses the same questions–Is it clear? Does it suit?–to a wider range of the work. In particular he applies these tests to the external faults of sentences as well as their internal ones. He says “Nobody has been able to define sentence satisfactorily–which shows how important the subject is. As in poetry, love, thought, and faith, the reality is familiar but it eludes definition. None the less, as a writer you cannot escape the duty of knowing when you have written a genuine sentence. A rough test is to see whether there is too much or too little between the first capital letter and the final period to give voice to a self-supporting idea.”

Barzun identifies three forms of sentence: “The simple sentence has the general form A  B: some agent acts on some object or person or is acted on by it. … The compound sentence consists of two simple paired or contrasted: A  B and (or but) X  Y. The complex sentence is made up of two parts, of which the main one is a simple or a compound, and the other is a group of words that could not stand alone yet contributes to the total meaning. This second part is called a subordinate clause … perhaps Z] A  B …” (or [Z at the end, etc.).

He cites a 110-word sentence from G. B. Shaw, analyzes how it works, and goes on: “The last lesson to be drawn from the example is the most valuable: what makes for smooth reading is the continuous presence and activity of the original subject–one only–until the comments to be made about it are exhausted. …

This faithfulness to one subject till justice has been done to it is the rule of clear thought.”

Principle 18:  The writing of a sentence is finished only when the order of the words cannot be changed without damage to the thought or its visibility.

He goes on to discuss larger aspects of composition, opening and closing, including the following:

… an example … Here is how an introducer of Henry James’s short stories “takes you in”: “The list of things Henry James will not do for you, the reader, is rather forbidding.” Immediately you want to know what is on that list, and the trick is done: you’re caught, and in a legitimate way that creates no resentment. For your opening, then, frame a declarative sentence that goes straight at the heart of things, awakens a serious curiosity, and in its quiet, assured finality establishes the competence of the demonstrator.

For closing, finality is of course still more in order. Nobody wants merely to stop, but rater to end. And since the ending of any good experience leaves regret, the feeling of loss must be compensated for by a feeling of gain: what do I, the reader, possess in exchange for my willing attention to this past discourse? Sometimes a summary answers that question most aptly. At other times a conclusion arrived at, a new idea, the net result of the investigation, is the proper close. … In a self-contained essay, the close may recall the beginning–we have come ful circle after a veriegated journey. When this device is adroitly used it gives the reader a pleasant sense of retrospect, as if he now had a complete view of the ground covered and could call the land his own. In short, like an opening, a close has work to do. Neither is a detachable frill. So inescapable is this function that a writer often finds his true beginning ten or twenty lines below his first sentence and his true closing ten or twenty lines before he stopped writing. Watch for those happy indications of your unconscious judgement.

He goes further:

Without losing sight of meaning as our criterion for wording, we have … turned our minds more and more to spontaneous thinking as the prime ingredient of writing. Almost everybody thinks not in single words, nor yet in complete sentences, but in blobs of ideas and words between the two–say a subject with two or three notions clinging to it that one wants to bring out. That first portion once put in shape pulls along another and another, and by then one probably has a sentence, compound or complex. It is very difficult to think more extensively in one stroke, though it often happens that the fragments come so fast, the next pushing the one in front out of sight, that the blur interferes with the task of formulation.

He then recommends keeping notes of ideas (on 3×5 cards or similar), and an outline to keep order among the unruly ideas. About notes he says: “always take notes in your own words–I mean, of course, facts and ideas garnered from elsewhere, not statements to be quoted verbatim. Everything else you reword, for two reasons: in that effort the fact or idea passes through your mind, instead of going from the page to your eye and thence to your note while you remain in a trance. Again, by rewording you mix something of your thought with the acquired datum, and the admixture is the beginning of your own thought-and-writing about the whole topic. Naturally you take care not to distort. But you will find that notes taken under this safeguard are much closer to you than mere transcripts taken from other books; they are warm and speak to you like old friends, because by your act of thought they have become pieces of your mind.”

About outlines, he warns against making a too-detailed outline: “It consists of the appropriate number of main heads–from three or four to twenty or thirty (in a work of book length). The great thing is that they should really be main heads–all equal weight and therefore, when written out, in length. The only exceptions to this even division of the whole are the Introduction and Conclusion, if appropriate. The same relations obtain on a smaller scale for an essay. … Proportion facilitates the understanding of a subject by automatically impressing on the mind the correct view of relative importance.”

Principle 19:  In whatever paragraphs or essays you write, verify the sequence of ideas and take out or transpose everything that interrupts the march of thought and feeling.

Barzun starts Chapter VI:  Revision, or What Have I Actually Said? thus:

A good judge of the facts has declared: “All writing is rewriting.” He meant good writing, for easy reading. The path to rewriting is obvious: when rereading after a shorter or longer lapse of time what one has written, one feels a dissatisfaction with this or that word, sentence, paragraph–or possibly with the whole effort, the essay or chapter. If, as I assume, things are not totally bad, the rewriting affects only bits here and there. The criterion is as it has been throughout: Meaning. If words you have set down puzzle you once you have forgotten how they came to your mind, they will puzzle the stranger and you must do something about them–rediscover your meaning and express it, not some other or none at all.

The truths behind these reflections guarantee that the piece written at midnight on the eve of the deadline date will be bad. It is scarcely looked over in that desperate hour of fatigue and self-reproach; it is no piece of prose, but the possible embryo of one.

He points out some fairly obvious (at least in the context of this work) points: Revision is likely to cut; the writer is exuberant about words and puts in too many. You need to listen to the sentences; sometimes they sound odd, and attract the reader’s attention to the oddity, rather than the sense. The visual marking off of parts and sections helps the reader recognize transitions.

Finally he provides a reviser’s guide:

I.  What is the tone of my piece? Have I indulged myself in language that is toplofty, patronizing, technical for mere showing off–or have I been simple & direct throughout, never falsely modest, but always sincere and respectful of the reader?

II.  Is the movement of my prose satisfactory to the mind and the ear? Are my sentences on their feet, varied in rhythm and length, and carrying each its full weight of meaning and implication–or are many of them rendered obscure by my inattention to matching parts or thrown off balance by the weight of modifiers and afterthoughts?

III.  have I tested and retested the meaning of each statement of mine to preclude ambiguities? have I made fast every pronoun to its proper mooring–the slightest error is fatal–or have I allowed my private comprehension of the sense to blind me one confusion after another?

IV.  On the same subject of ambiguity, have I linked modifiers, clauses, and compound sentences in the clearest manner possible–or have I produced a number of danglers, manifest absurdities, and other false leads that will require the reader to start the sentence again and do the work I have left undone?

V.  Can I say, looking at single words, that every one of them means and connotes what I think it does? Or has my diction been spoiled by threadbare clichés, pseudo-technical jargon, unthinking metaphors, and that excess of abstract words known as the noun plague?

VI.  Still on the subject of words, have I been strict as well as clear–or have I committed any illiteracies, malapropisms, ludicrous confusions by echo, or heedless kingles by alliteration and rhyming syllables?

VII.  I turn now to my theme and ask myself whether the ideas of which it consists have been set down fully and in consecutive order–or have I again relied on my understanding of the subject to bridge over gaps in thought and to disentangle snarls in description?

VIII.  In the layout of my paper have devoted space and furnished detail in proportion to the importance of each topic–or have I concentrated on what interested me and skimped the rest, whether owing to a poor outline or the neglect of a good one?

IX.  Since readers have in common the desire to be enticed and to experience afterward a sense of acquisition, have I contrived the most engaging opening for my subject and the ending best fitted to leave an impress on the mind? Or do I fumble my way at first and leave matters in the air at the last? To which query I would add: do the divisions of the paper provide breathing spells at once significant and agreeable?

X.  Have I reread my copy and made it both correct and sightly? Or have I been inattentive, ignorant, lazy, and rude about typing, spelling, punctuation, inserts for correction, and other marks for the reader’s convenience?

Principle 20:  Read and revise, reread and revise, keep reading and revising until your text seems adequate to your thought.

1995-02-01: The New Oxford Guide to Writing

The New Oxford Guide to Writing (1988)

by Thomas S. Kane (-)

This is what the title promises. Much of the advice might be useful, if I could remember it, or refer to it easily. As a library book, only a few bits seem useful enough to dwell on. I found all of Chapter 11, and parts of Chapters 13, 24 and 27 interesting.


Chapter 11, Point of View, Persona, and Tone

Point of View

Thus far we have looked at how to begin and end essays and how to help readers follow the flow of thought. It remains to consider several other aspects of a composition, more abstract but no less important. These are point of view, persona, and tone.

Point of view relates to how you present a subject. Two approaches are possible. In a personal point of view you play the role of writer openly, using “I,” “me,” “my.” An impersonal point of view, on the other hand, requires that you avoid all explicit references to yourself. The difference is not that in a personal point of view the subject is the writer, while in an impersonal one it is something else. Every subject involves, though it is not necessarily about, the writer. The difference is a question of strategy.

On many occasions one point of view or the other is preferable. Some topics so intimately involve the writer that they require a first-person presentation. It would sound silly to describe your summer vacation impersonally. Don’t be afraid to use “I” if it fits your subject and purpose.

On other occasions a personal point of view is not appropriate. A scientist, writing professionally, usually trues to keep his or personality below the surface, and properly so: scientific subjects are best treated objectively.

Of course many topics can be presented from either point of view, though the two approaches will result in different essays. In such cases you must consider occasion and reader and the degree of formality you want. An impersonal point of view seems more formal, a personal one less so.

Whichever you select, establish it in the opening paragraph. You needn’t say, “My point of view will be personal [or impersonal].” Simply use “I” if you intend to write personally, or avoid it if you do not. (Such substitutes for “I” as “this observer,” “your reporter,” or “the writer” are wordy and awkward and best avoided.)

Maintain point of view consistently. Don’t jump back and forth between a personal and impersonal presentation. At the same time, you can make small adjustments. For example, you may expand “I” to “we” when you wish to imply “I the writer and you the reader.” Whether writing impersonally or impersonally you may address readers as individuals by employing “you,” or shift to “one,” “anyone,” “people,” and so on, when you are referring to no one specifically.

But such shifts in point of view should be compatible with the emphasis you desire, and they should be slight. Radical changes, nine times in ten, are awkward. It is good practice, then, (1) to select a point of view appropriate to your subject, (2) to establish your point of view in the opening paragraph, and (3) to maintain it consistently.


Persona derives from the Latin word for an actor’s mask (in the Greek and Roman theaters actors wore cork masks carved to represent the type of character they were playing.) As a term in composition, persona means the writer’s presence in the writing.

The derivation from “mask” may be misleading. It does not imply a false face, a disguise, behind which the real individual hides. A writer’s persona is always “real.” It is there, in the prose. The words you choose, the sentence patterns into which you arrange them, even the kinds of paragraphs you write and how you organize your essay, suggest a personality, which is, for that particular piece of writing, you.

But, you may object, a persona is not really the person who writes. (Person, interestingly enough, comes from the same Latin word.) Of course, that is true, and it is true that the same writer may assume different personas on different occasions. Still, the only contact readers generally have with a writer is through his or her words. For readers the persona implicit in those words is the real, existential fact about the writer.

The question to ask about any persona is not, Is this really the writer? The questions are, Is it really how the writer wants to appear? And, Is it how he or she can best appear? To put the matter another way: Is the persona authentic and appropriate?

Authenticity means that the personality readers sense in your words is the personality you want them to perceive. To say that a persona is authentic does not necessarily mean that it is really you. We are all many different people, showing one face to friends, another to strangers, still another to the boss. Here authenticity simply means that how you appear in what you write is how you wish to appear.

But authenticity is not enough. A persona must also be appropriate, efficacious in the sense that it achieves your ends. At the very least it ought not to get in the way.

Persona is most immediately and directly revealed when a writer discusses himself or herself. For instance, a clear personality emerges in the following passage from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Franklin is explaining that when he educated himself as a youth he learned to drop his habit of “abrupt contradiction, and positive argumentation” and to become more diffident in putting forward his opinions. (He is, of course, talking about the same thing we are — persona.)

[I retained] the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence, never using when I advance any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words, certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather I say, I conceive, or I apprehend a thing to be so or so, It appears to me, or I should think it so for such & such reasons, or I imagine it to be so, or it is so if I am not mistaken. This habit I believe has been of great advantage to me, when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions & persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting. And as the chief ends of conversation are to inform, or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well meaning sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive assuming manner that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information, or pleasure: for if you would inform, a positive dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments, may provoke contradiction & prevent a candid attention. If you wish information & improvement from the knowledge of others and yet at the same time express your self as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably lave you undisturb’d in the possession of your error; and by such a manner you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire.

Franklin strikes us as a discerning and candid man, sensitive to how he affects people, but sensitive to how he affects people, but sensitive in an unabashedly egocentric way. His advice about not coming on too strong — still worth heeding — is based not so much on concern for others as on a clear-eyed awareness that modesty is the way to get on in the world. Yet the very openness and ease with which Franklin urges that advice washes away its taint of self-serving manipulation.

We sense a different personality in these paragraphs from Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography:

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy — ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of my life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relives loneliness — that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what — at least — I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they are possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

Russell is more emotional than Franklin. His attitude toward knowledge and toward other people is less self-serving and more passionate. He is driven to knowledge not because it serves his ambition but because of a compulsive desire to know (though Franklin too could show a disinterested quest for knowledge). Russell sees other people not as helps or hindrances to his career, but as fellow humans, for whose suffering he can feel compassion and sorrow.

Yet there is more to Russell’s persona than the obvious emotionalism. His feelings are constrained within a rational framework. The organization of his paragraphs is tightly analytical, and the whole passage can easily be reduced to an outline. Here is someone who not only feels intensely but whose intellect imposes order upon emotions, giving them a sharper focus. We sense a powerful, complex mind, in which emotion and reason are not at war but are reinforcing allies. Russell’s passionate response to life gains intensity because it is shaped by reason.

Persona, as you can see, is a function of the total composition. It emerges not only from the meanings of words but also from the more abstract, less obviously expressive patterns of sentences and paragraphs and from the overall organization.

While most obvious in autobiographies, persona is not confined to such writing. It exists in all compositions. Even when a writer sues an impersonal point of view, avoiding “I,” “me,” “my,” we sense a personality. In the following passage a historian is discussing dress and personal cleanliness in the Middle Ages:

Hemp was much used as a substitute for flax in making linen; the though of hemp curdles the blood.

In the thirteenth-century romance L’Escoufle Sir Giles, beside the fire, removes all his clothes to scratch himself. (Fleas, no doubt.) – Morris Bishop

Such comments reveal writers as personalities, with their own ways of looking at the world — in Bishop’s case with a pleasantly cynical humor.

Even in relatively faceless writing there exists a persona. Here is Charles Darwin describing the mouth of a duck:

The beak of the shoveller-duck (Spatula clypeata) is a more beautiful and complex structure that the mouth of a whale. The upper mandible is furnished on each side (in the specimen examined by me) with a row or comb formed of 188 thin, elastic lamellae, obliquely bevelled so as to be pointed, and placed transversely to the longer axis of the mouth.

Darwin’s is an observant, precise mind. He refrains from saying more than facts allow: notice the qualification “(in the specimen examined by me).” Although he does allow emotion occasionally to show (a “beautiful … structure”), Darwin’s tone is essentially sober, objective, painstaking, which, for his purpose, is exactly what it should be.


If persona is the complex personality implicit in the writing, tone is a web of feelings stretched throughout an essay, feelings from which our sense of the persona emerges. Tone has three main strands: the writer’s attitude toward subject, reader, and self.

Each of these determinants of tone is important, and each has many variations. Writers may be angry about a subject or amused by it or discuss it dispassionately. They may treat readers as intellectual inferiors to be lectured (usually a poor tactic) or as friends with whom they are talking. Themselves they may regard very seriously or with an ironic or an amused detachment (to suggest only three of numerous possibilities). Given all these variables, the possibilities of tone are almost endless.

Tone, like persona, is unavoidable. You imply it in the words you select and in how you arrange them. It behooves you, then, to create an appropriate tone and to avoid those — pomposity, say, or flippancy — which will put readers off. Here are a few examples of how skillful writers make tone work for them.

Tone Toward Subject

Toward most subjects many attitudes are possible. Often tone is simple objectivity, as in these two paragraphs:

Physical science is that department of knowledge which relates to the order of nature, or, in other words, to the regular succession of events.

The name of physical science, however, is often applied in a more or less restricted manner to those branches of science in which the phenomena considered are of the simplest and most abstract kind, excluding the consideration of the more complex phenomena, such as those occurring in living beings. James Clerk Maxwell

Maxwell’s purpose is to define physical science, not to express his feelings about it. His language, accordingly, is denotative and his tone objective and unemotional.

The writer of the following paragraph, on the other hand, is angry:

The Exorcist is a menace, the most shocking major movie I have ever seen. Never before have I witnessed such a flagrant combination of perverse sex, brutal violence, and abused religion. In addition, the film degrades the medical profession and psychiatry. At the showing I went to, the unruly audience giggled, talked, and yelled throughout. As well they might. Although the picture is not X-rated, it is so pornographic that it makes Last Tango in Paris seem like a Strauss waltz. Ralph R. Greenson, MD

And in this example an angry tone is expressed more subtly, beneath a surface of irony. The writer is describing the efforts of nineteenth-century laborers to improve their working conditions:

As early as June 8, 1847 the Chartists had pushed through a factory law restricting working time for women and juveniles to eleven hours, and from May 1, 1848 to ten hours. This was not at all to the liking of the manufacturers, who were worried about their young people’s morals and exposure to vice; instead of being immured for a whole twelve hours in the cozy, clean, moral atmosphere of the factories, they were now to be loosed an hour earlier into the hard, cold, frivolous outer world. Fritz J. Raddatz

Tone Toward Reader

You may think of your readers in widely different ways. Some writers tend to be assertive and dogmatic, treating readers as a passive herd to be instructed. The playwright and social critic George Bernard Shaw attacks the evils of capitalism in such a manner:

Just as Parliament and the Courts are captured by the rich, so is the Church. The average parson does not teach honesty and equality in the village school: he teaches deference to the merely rich, and calls that loyalty and religion.

At the other extreme a writer may establish a more intimate face-to-face tone, as though talking to a friend. In the following case Ingrid Bengis is discussing the problem of being the “other woman” in a married man’s life, of having to share him with his wife:

One or the other of you is going to spend the night with him, the weekend with him, Christmas with him. (I’ve tried all three of us spending it together. Doesn’t work.) One or the other of you is going to go on trips with him.

Bengis’ informal, conversational tone depends on several things. For one, she addresses her readers directly, acknowledging their presence and bringing them and herself into a more intimate, and seemingly more equal, relationship. For another, she cultivates a colloquial style, one suggesting the voice of a friend: the contractions (“I’ve,” Doesn’t”) and the terse fragment (“Doesn’t work”).

A friendly informal tone need not be restricted to commonplace subjects. In much contemporary exposition, even of a scholarly sort, writers often relax the older convention of maintaining a formal distance between themselves and their audience. Here, for instance, is a well-known scholar writing about Shakespeare:

Great plays, as we know, do present us with something that can be called a world, a microcosm — a world like our own in being made of people, actions, situations, thoughts, feelings, and much more, but unlike our own in being perfectly, or almost perfectly, significant and coherent. Maynard Mack

While certainly not as colloquial as Ingrid Bengis, Mack acknowledges his readers (“as we know”) and subtly flatters their intelligence and sophistication.

Writers working for the illusion of a talking voice sometimes use italics to suggest the loudness and pitch by which we draw attention to important words. The historian Barbara Tuchman does this effectively in the following passage (she is arguing that freedom of speech does not require that we accept any and all pornography):

The cause of pornography is not the same as the cause of free speech. There is a difference. Ralph Ginsburg is not Theodore Dreiser and this is not the 1920s.

Used sparingly, in that way, italics help to suggest a voice with which readers can connect. But note the caution: sparingly. Italics used for emphasis can easily become a mannerism, and then an annoyance.

Tone Toward Self

Toward himself or herself a writer can adopt an equally great variety of tones. Objective, impersonal exposition involves a negative presentation of the writer, so to speak. By avoiding personal references or idiosyncratic comments, he or she becomes a transparency through which we observe facts or ideas. A British writer discussing the Battle of Anzio in Italy during World War II begins like this:

The full story of Anzio, which was originally conceived as a minor landing behind enemy lines but evolved through many ups and downs into a separate Italian front of major importance, needs a history to itself. Within the scope of the present work it is possible only to summarize the main events and their significance in so far as they affected the main front at Cassino. Fred Majdalany

On the other hand, writers may be more self-conscious and deliberately play a role. In exposition it is often a good tactic to present yourself a bit deferentially, as Benjamin Franklin suggests in the passage quoted earlier. An occasional “it seems to me” or “I think” or “to my mind” goes a long way toward avoiding a tone of cocksureness and restoring at least a semblance of two-way traffic on that unavoidably one-way street from writer to reader. Thus a scholar writing about Chaucer’s love poetry escapes dogmatism by a qualifying phrase:

His early love complaints are less conventional than most and have the unmistakable ring, or so it seems to me, of serious attempts at persuasion. John Gardner

A writer’s exploitation of a self-image may go considerably beyond an occasional “I think.” Humorous writers, for example, often present themselves as ridiculous.

Every so often, when business slackens up in the bowling alley and the other pin boys are hunched over their game of bezique, I like to exchange my sweatshirt for a crisp white surgical tunic, polish up my optical mirror, and examine the corset advertisements in the New York Herald Tribune rotogravure section and the various women’s magazines. It must be made clear at the outset that my motives are the purest and my curiosity that of the scientific research worker rather than the sex maniac. S. J. Perelman.

Such role-playing is not quite the same as a persona. A writer’s persona is reflected in all aspects of a composition, not simply in a self-caricature designed to amuse us or in the guise of a deferential friend hoping to charm us. Beyond any momentary character the writer may be playing is there creator of that role. It is that creator, that total intelligence and sensibility, which constitutes the persona.


In Chapter 13 on Paragraph Unity, Kane discusses linking successive sentences with conjunctive adverbs.


… conjunctive (also called transitional) adverbs, which indicate relationships between ideas. The relationship may be one of time (presently, meanwhile, afterwards); of space (above, below, in front); or of logic (therefore, however, as a result). …

Transitional adverbs are best placed at or near the beginnig of the sentence. Readers are like people groping down a drak passage, and an important part of the writer’s task is to show them the way. Connective words are signal lights telling readers what to expect. However flashes, “contradiction ahead”; in fact warns, “Here comes a strong restatement of something just said”; and theerefore, “A conclusion or a consequence is approaching.”

Acquiring a working set of conjunctive adverbs is not difficult. English is rich in them. Just to show some sort of contradiction or opposition, for example, we have but, however, still, yet, nonetheless, nevertheless, though, instead, on the other hand, on the contrary, notwithstanding, even so, and the list is not complete. While they show generally the same basic reqaltionship, these wrods are not exact equivalents. They convey nuances of idea and tone. Nevertheless, for instance, is a more formal word than though. Because of such slight but important differences in meaning and tone, good writers have ready at hand a number of transitional adverbs. If you can call only upon but or however you cannot communicate what is implied by yet or still or though.

And and but present a special case. Most often they act as conjunctive adverbs, joining words, phrases, or clauses within a sentence. But they can also function adverbially. Sometime one hears the wraning, “Never begin a sentence with and or but.” The fact is that good writers do begin with these words (the italics are added):

Is not indeed every man a student, and do not all things exist for the studen’ts behoof? And, finally, is not the true scholar the only true master? – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I come finally to the chief defiler of undergraduate writing. And I regret to say that we professors are certainly the culprits. And what we are doing we do in all innocence and with the most laudable of motives. Willard Thorp

Natural philosophy had in the Middle Ages become a closed chapter of human endeavour…. But although the days of Greek science had ended, its results had not been lost. Kurt Mendelssohn

As sentence openers and and but are very useful. But is less formal than however, while and is less formal and ponderous than furthermore or morevover or additionally. Don’t be afraid of initial ands and buts. But use them moderately.


My interest in this passage is mainly in the reference to the richness of English, which raised the question of how many such words are Anglo-Saxon, and how many are later imports.

In Chapter 24, Meaning, Kane mentions the “communication triangle,” connecting the writer, the reader and the topic:

There is no direct connection between these three; rather all connections are mediated by words. Three “telic modes” of meaning are recognized: referential, interpersonal, and directive. The referential mode connects writer and topic. Words are chosen for the exactness and economy with which they refer to what he observes, knows, thinks, feels — what is in his mind.

The interpersonal mode is the way in which words affect the reader’s impression of the writer, as modest or dogmatic, for example. These affect the reader’s perception of the writer’s persona.

The directive mode is the way words assist readers to understand (intellectually, constructive diction) or feel (emotionally, emotive diction) about the topic. Emotion-laden words such as Brut, rat-like, bourgeois lust, pinko liberals, grass-roots, and old-fashioned, can affect a reader’s emotional reaction, and his acceptance of the rest of the message in the text.

The triangle, and the position of words in it is illustrated by the diagram.


In Chapter 27, Figurative Language, Kane mentions puns, and zeugma (pronounced ZOOG-ma), a special kind of pun in which a verb is used with two or more objects, but with a difference in meaning. Novelist Lawrence Durrell describes the plight of a maiden chased by three lustful monks:

Joanna, pursued by the three monks, ran about the room, leaping over tables and chairs, sometimes throwing a dish or a scriptural maxim at her pursuers.

Ambrose Bierce defined the piano:

Piano, n. A parlor utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience.


The following from Kane’s list of conjunctive adverbs indicate that most (and all compound words) are from Old English (or Old Norse). All later borrowings or derivations (from Norman influence) are in the form of phrases (when compound).

above: OE

afterwards: after OE + wards OE

as a result: as OE a OE result ME

below: be OE + low ON

but: OE

even so: even OE + so OE

however: how OE + ever OE

in fact: in OE + fact L

in front: in OE + front ME/OF

instead: … + stead OE

meanwhile: mean OE + while OE

nevertheless: never OE + the OE + less OE

nonetheless: none OE …

notwithstanding: not OE + withstand OE + ing OE

on the contrary: on OE … contrary ME/MF

on the other hand: other OE + hand OE

presently, ME/OF

still: OE

therefore: there OE + for/fore OE

though: OE/ON

yet: OE